CHAPTER TWELVE: TRUTH
Khoth stared at Jace’s now naked figure floating beneath the blue surface of the liquid in the tank. His clothes had broken apart and the remnants of them had been efficiently vacuumed away leaving the liquid a pure, electric blue once more.
When he’d first seen Jace’s body unclothed it had been quite thin with little musculature and very little fat on it. He had looked frail and, also, like he had suffered for years. Khoth was amazed at how much strength of will had been in that fragile package. Though as he watched Jace’s form now, it appeared that it was changing.
Is he gaining muscle? Yes, it appears so.
Tubes were attached all along Jace’s spine, at his wrists, into biceps, two in his stomach, and also four in the thighs and calves. The liquid being pumped into Jace appeared to be a mixture of many colors and he could not identify what it was. The veins and arteries under Jace’s skin showed a dark blue perhaps in response. Would that color remain or would it disappear after this process was complete?
I hope it does not change his eyes. He has such beautiful eyes.
Khoth shifted from foot to foot as he continued to study Jace’s changing form. Those beautiful eyes were closed and there were no signs of distress on his face. If there had been, Khoth might have been inclined to step into the tank and take Jace out of it. But all appeared to be going to plan at the moment. Though whose plan was now less clear.
Jace’s arms were stretched out to his sides. His fingers twitched occasionally and Khoth wondered if he were dreaming or if it was just an autonomic response.
I hope your Xi and Xa are in alignment, Jace, and you experience only peace.
He could almost imagine Thammah making a scoffing noise at him and that expressive lifting of one of her eyebrows at this. He had nearly let Jace die for the greater good, had he not? How could he now act as if he were Jace’s protector? She would have had a point.
He wondered where she was. He almost missed her acerbic wit. She was too smart to be caught by the humans. He guessed that she was hiding out in some part of the now-active Osiris. If Jace survived this connection to Gehenna the humans would likely forgive their trespasses. His mind flashed back to Colonel Diane Parker’s face just before the doors to the Core had shut.
She will never forgive, I think. Nor forget.
He had taken her child. A mother was fierce in the protection of her young. And there was something about Jace that made people want to protect him, even as he was strong-willed.
Has my admiration for Jace caused me to break the Rule of Duuskukeh again? Thammah would say yes, but then she would add that it was a good thing.
Khoth’s lips flattened. He should be upset with himself that he had likely lost this technology to humanity forever. But he couldn’t be. Truth was the most important thing to embrace about oneself. And his truth was that he didn’t regret what he’d done. He was completely pleased that Jace was going to live.
Maybe I deserve to be exiled. Maybe that is the safest thing for the Alliance.
Yet his mind voice was mild and he imagined Daesah saying in response, “There is no shame in caring for the individual, Khoth. After all, what is the whole, but made of ones? Your empathy is your strength. Not a weakness.”
He reached inside of his exo-suit and felt the spine of her last journal under his fingertips. He had stuffed it into the interior pocket before going to Jace’s hospital room. He had a moment to read it now before Jace woke up. He should do so.
He will wake up. He will be repaired and… improved in some ways. Narrowing his eyes, Khoth again confirmed that the young man’s body was changing. He will still be lithe but much smaller than me, yet a powerful package.
His eyes drifted to Jace’s genitals. It was natural to be interested in another species’ reproductive organs. It was not something he felt particular embarrassment about. But he had to admit that there was something easier about quenching this interest when Jace was unaware of it.
Human anatomy was similar to Thaf’ell in some ways. The long pinkish shaft was like his thicker, longer blue one. He had no nest of curls like Jace did around the base of that cock. He considered whether Jace’s cock would change, as his did, when aroused. He tilted his head to the side as he noted the furry balls that were nestled up against Jace’s body. He wondered what they would feel like, what the whole of it would feel like. Soft? Scaly? Turgid?
Khoth shifted again as surprising heat bloomed in him. Blood coursed to his cheeks and he looked down at the journal instead of at Jace’s naked body. It was one thing to take an interest in another species. It was something else entirely to be aroused by them. He spun around so that his back was to the pool and that tempting body.
He blindly paged through his sister’s journal, noting the familiar, neat handwriting in violet ink. His heart ached just seeing it and knowing that she would never write another word again. His sadness erased the arousal quickly.
He ran his fingers over the pages and leaned down to sniff them, trying to find yet another trace of her there. The Thaf’ell believed that to write was to pull a piece of one’s Xi out of oneself forever so that others could experience it. He had never really believed that. But he was in the minority. Thaf’ell artists were not held to the same social strictures as everyone else in order for them to freely share their Xi without regard to Xa. They were thought to be special. He just thought them strange.
But, in that moment, he knew that though his sister’s words would not be lyrical like one of their poets or writers, these words were part of her. They were words he had never read before and, once he read them for this first time, they would not be new any longer. There would forever be less of her to know even as his understanding of her would grow. His throat tightened and his heart grew heavy in his chest.
His eyes were still simply scanning the lines, not reading the words when he suddenly caught the name “Osiris”. He slowed down his paging and started to focus. What had his sister known about this ship? What was her reason for wanting to come to the Osiris? What secrets could he discover for her here? What questions of hers could he answer? He needed to know. He began to read.
… heard from Dr. Lafrei about her work on Thausia…
Khoth frowned. He had heard of Dr. Kantor Lafrei and his impression was not good. She was a Neenda, a mostly aquatic species that claimed to be able to read the memories of the person who created an object through simply touching that object. While the Neenda had been able to prove that their reading ability worked on objects created by many of the species in the Alliance, their readings of Precursors had been less satisfactory.
The Neenda produced countless papers supposedly about Precursor thought and history after touching their technology but they were so vague as to be useless. There were theories as to why. Such as that the Neenda were simply too distant a Seeded Species from the Altaeth to be able to understand their thoughts. The Thaf’ell believed that the Neenda were simply too empathetic to understand the cold logic of the Precursors and, therefore, shied away from it. Some had even accused the Neenda of lying about their readings to hide Precursor beliefs that varied from their own.
Dr. Lafrei was the most prolific of these readers and, not inconsequentially, the most distrusted. Yet because of that--and so as not to offend the Neenda as their work in reading Khul objects had been invaluable--she had been allowed to continue this practice on Thausia, an abandoned Precursor world that had few, if unusual, artifacts.
… most of Thausia’s laboratories and manufacturing centers were obliterated seemingly by the Precursors themselves. Yet, despite the destruction, Dr. Lafrei has been able to read many of the structures--
Khoth was frowning again. Dr. Lafrei contended that the Precursors had destroyed some of their own buildings and technology? Why think of them instead of the Khul? All Precursor worlds had been found to be mostly intact with full defenses online that kept the Khul at bay. The Precursors had taken an almost fanatic care to ensure that, at least the remnants of their civilization would not be lost to the sands of time. It was theorized that they had understood that their weaponry and technology were the only thing stopping the Khul from destroying the Seeded Species, including the Thaf’ell. Yet here was his sister and Dr. Lafrei contending that the Precursors had attempted to obliterate this part of themselves.
She believes that there is a connection between the Osiris and Thausia, namely that the Osiris was built there, along with other technology the likes of which we have not seen on any of the other Precursor worlds. And there is a reason for that...
Khoth’s eyebrows lifted. These were not the vague almost poetic ramblings that the Neenda usually gave regarding the Precursors. There was normally a reverential tone to those honest gibberings. But Dr. Lafrei’s understanding here was full of definiteness.
His forehead furrowed further. He knew that he had not heard of any of this in the Neenda papers. Yet he did not really look at them unless he wished to fall asleep or perform mind puzzles. But surely such clear readings would have gone beyond those dense papers and made it into the military’s recommended review list! Yet they had not. He continued on.
… Dr. Lafrei’s readings have indicated that the Precursors on Thausia were a splinter group with a radical agenda.
That brought him up short. Not that he had thought that any species would all agree on everything. But the Precursors had seemed pretty united in their fight against the Khul. All of their society, their technology, was invested in protecting themselves and the Seeded Species from Khul destruction and assimilation.
After countless cycles of war and a stalemate between them, the majority of the Precursors had come to believe that it was better to simply defend themselves and not attack.
Another frown drew his lips down at the corners. This was mostly what the Alliance’s tactics had been. Despite their best efforts, they had not been able to find the Khul’s homeworld or the bulk of their civilization. It was thought that they were a nomadic species, arranged into groups of ships of various sizes called a Swarm. The more Hives in a Swarm, the more Khul. It was impossible to stomp every Swarm out, because the Alliance did not truly know how many there were or where they were or when they would show up. Space was large, to say the least.
Even with the Alliance concentrating on defense, the Khul had still managed inroads into Alliance territory. The Khul seemed to have endless amounts of Swarms. But still it was thought better to remain in Alliance space then thin their defenses by seeking out these Swarms blindly. The Alliance had pulled back to patrol the space that they controlled and no farther. His sister had not been the architect of this strategy, but he had thought her in agreement with it.
Yet there was something in the tone of the writing which suggested he was wrong about that. Her following words confirmed it.
The splinter group believed that the basis of the Khul's very identity was to destroy and assimilate all life. The Khul viewed the Precursors as a threat to that core belief-system and, therefore, the Khul would do everything they could to obliterate the Precursors and they would never stop. A strategy of defense was simply slow death.
Khoth’s hands tightened on the journal. His own sister’s life had been lost in a similar patrol. The Xols that had caused his sister’s suspicions to raise had no secrets. Or rather, it had, but those were about a personal matter that had made it come across as suspicious. Simply put, it was cheating on its mate when it had discovered the Khul ships and feared reporting it would reveal the affair.
I have come to believe that this splinter group within the Precursors was right. We are currently following the majority of the Precursor’s lead and we are failing. We are being chipped away, planet by planet. We cede space at every turn. We are not more safe now than when I took over command. We are less…
Khoth re-read those words again and again. He had no idea that she had felt this. He wanted to push her words away as simply private fears, not basic facts. He did not want her to be right. And yet… truth. Truth was what mattered. He knew of half a dozen worlds that they had abandoned. Worlds where scientific, mining, agricultural and other activities were taking place. The reason given was that the cost to keep these far-flung worlds safe was too expensive in terms of people power, fuel and other resources. Now, only if a world had Precursor technology at a certain level and density would they protect that new world. His sister… was right. He kept reading.
Dr. Lafrei believes her readings show that the Osiris was built with the intention of offensive action against the Khul. She believes that the Osiris has the key to defeating the Khul. And I believe her. I will find a way to resurrect the Osiris and I will use that vessel to destroy the Khul, once and for all...
Khoth drew in a deep breath. He thought of Jace, Gehenna, and the strangeness of the Osiris’ outer structure, among countless other things. The Osiris was definitely built with another purpose than any other ship they had discovered.
And yet it was used as a prison. What if it was simply a prison ship sent to take this splinter faction to another world for trial and judgment and not a ship of war as my sister thought?
He did not dismiss this idea. It could be right, after all. Gehenna’s actions had not exactly been above board. She seemed almost sneaky and, most definitely, secretive. He had been able to piece together much of what she had done by reading her one-sided conversation with Jace. She had tried to create a Pilot by tricking one of the human scientists into Osiris’ Core, but then things had gone very wrong. She believed that the Osiris had tricked her to gain access to Jace…
There was a sound--a soft splashing--from the pool. Khoth spun around, tucking his sister’s last journal into his inner pocket as he did so. He hoped to see Jace, freed of the lines, climbing out of the pool. But no, Jace was still seemingly unconscious, but he had thrashed.
A bad dream? Or pain?
Khoth brought up his exo-suit’s scanner to check Jace’s vitals. The suit had access to a database of all Alliance species biology, including human ones. But before his suit could even complete the scan, a holographic screen--similar to what he saw in the Exarch--appeared floating above the pool.
He watched the flowing lines that likely indicated heart rate, breathing and brain waves. The lines were green and looked regular. But he was no expert on humanity. So he wasn’t sure if these were good or bad and was about to search the database when the holographic screen updated. In Thaf’ell. in fact, in the dialect he was familiar with.
The information on the screen told him that Jace’s condition was good. There were also links to various dissertations on human biology, also in the Thaf’ell language. There was also grayed out information on the Pilot with a capital “P”. That information, apparently, was locked from him.
Khoth frowned as he asked, “Gehenna?”
He glanced from his suit’s holographic interface where Gehenna had communicated with him before to the screen over the pool. There was no greeting from the AI on either device. He turned to look at the “squid”. A tube--not filled with liquid though--was plugged into the clear glass “skull”. There were no lights inside the skull and it appeared quite dead. He hoped that Gehenna was sleeping and recovering in the same way that Jace was.
“Gehenna?” he found himself calling again.
The screen’s initial appearance, not to mention it changing to reflect what he wanted to know without him directing such actions, felt very much like that moment in the Exarch when it had shown him Haseon.
It did not show me. It was a glitch of some kind.
Was this a glitch? Or some kind of coincidence? Perhaps he had just stepped in the right place for the screen to appear. Perhaps the ship had simply aligned with the language in his suit. These were all far more likely things than… that what?
Gehenna thought she was conned, that the Osiris, itself, had used her to get to Jace. Is the Osiris another AI too?
He stepped back towards the doors to the Core, watching the holographic screen to see if it so much as flickered. Nothing happened. It remained there. Static.
“Turn the screen 45 degrees,” Khoth said out loud.
The screen moved so that it snapped towards him.
“Interesting.” His eyebrows lifted.
The Exarch had a voice function though it never seemed to work well. But perhaps the Osiris’ system was better suited to oral commands.
“What is the remaining time that Jace will remain in the tank?” Khoth asked.
Immediately, a timer appeared on the bottom right corner of the screen. It was counting down from 10:21… 10:20… 10:19…
Khoth felt a wave of relief and happiness that Jace would be released from the tank, hopefully recovered. A quick once-over again of Jace’s form showed him that the young man had gained considerable muscle. His sex organs appeared the same. Considering he found them quite perfect, there was no need for them to change. Flushing hotly, he wondered if his observations were not unseen. It certainly appeared that someone or something was observing him.
“Osiris?” Khoth asked.
There was no answer, as there had been no answer when he’d called for Gehenna. Yet that might not mean the Osiris was not the one watching him. While Gehenna had been clear that the Osiris was not like her, it was clearly independent in some tasks. So perhaps it did not speak or communicate in the way he anticipated. Perhaps it was waiting for him to ask it something and did not simply respond to its name.
Or perhaps it is simply ignoring me.
“Osiris, I wish to ask you about your makers,” Khoth stated, hands crossed at the wrists behind his back.
No response again. But was there the smallest flicker in the lights?
“Osiris, did the Altaeth create you?” Khoth asked.
He waited. Nothing. Not even that flicker of light.
“Osiris, what is your purpose?”
“Osiris, why did you choose Jace as your Pilot?”
Despite it seeming that he was speaking to himself, he still had the distinct impression that he was being listened to. He licked his lips as the sensation was unnerving. He found himself looking over his shoulder, expecting to see something behind him. But there was nothing there. Just the Core chamber.
“Osiris, there is a Hive in low-Earth orbit,” Khoth stated. Perhaps if it really had been created to attack the Khul, it would respond to this. “Our one remaining ship on this world is a Paladin-class. Its weapons are insufficient to destroy the Hive. Do you have any armaments that could destroy this Hive?”
There was a pregnant pause and then another holographic screen flickered to life along one of the curing walls of the Core. Khoth found himself holding his breath. A single blinking cursor appeared on the screen as if waiting for input.
Whose input? Not mine, evidently.
Khoth’s relief that Jace had been taken into the pool to be cared for though was replaced by unease. The liquids being pumped into Jace’s body were not identified. This very strange ship might have been created by a violent, splinter faction of Precursors. Who knew what it’s intentions were? Had he brought Jace to a place of healing or into one of danger?
Khoth’s eyes lifted to the closed doors to the Core chamber. There were no thumping sounds of the humans attempting to get inside. Not that there would be even if they had planted explosives on it. Calcanth resisted all such destruction though it would easily form structures to begin with.
“Osiris, can you show me what is happening in the corridor outside of this room?” Khoth asked, assuming it would ignore him again.
But there wasn’t even a hesitation before another holographic screen appeared on a flat wall by the doors and showed him the corridor beyond. The humans were indeed out there, attempting to cut through with various torches and thin lines of gummy explosives. Khoth shook his head. Humans were so predictable. The reports on them stated that they always had to be doing something, even if that something was not useful, but it, undoubtedly, soothed their Xis.
But Jace is their child.
He could see both Colonel Diane Parker and Captain Jack Parker among the soldiers outside the doors. Jace’s mother stood ramrod straight, hands on her hips, eyes staring at the closed doors as if she could get past them by sheer will alone. Jace’s father raked his hands through his short hair until it was sticking up. There were lines of strain around both of their eyes and mouths. Neither were yelling or running about. They appeared in control, but it was obvious that they were suffering with worry for their son.
“We should speak to them,” Khoth said.
We? If it is not Gehenna I am speaking to, but some kind of Virtual Intelligence on the Osiris, there is no “we”. Only “me”.
The screen changed and there was volume input. He saw that another screen had appeared in the hallway when Colonel Parker jerked back a step. But then she strode forward, gesturing for the soldiers to move out of her way.
“Commander Khoth,” Colonel Parker said calmly, though there was a harsh edge to her tone. “I order you to open these doors immediately.”
Khoth stood at attention. “Colonel Parker, I would comply with your order, but I fear you will take actions that will harm your son.”
“Harm my son?” Anger sparked in her eyes. “How dare you!”
He was certain that she would attempt to remove Jace from the tank violently. He could not allow that. Whatever the Osiris or Gehenna’s motivations, one thing he was sure of was that Jace needed to complete this process.
“I meant no disrespect. I understand your feelings on this matter, but I cannot risk him at this juncture,” Khoth responded. “I believe your actions, should I allow you in here, would endanger him.”
Colonel Parker brought up one of the e-pads and turned it towards the screen. His mother was on it. She had evidently gone well above his head to the one person who could order him to act differently. Or so they both thought. Khoth though had no intention of letting anyone in here.
“My son, what are you doing?” His mother asked.
“Saving Jace Parker’s life,” he answered simply.
She did not get to finish whatever she was about to say as there was a whaaaaaaa sound that seemed to echo in his bones from the Osiris. The hair on the back of his neck stood up and the humans went rigid with alarm. Khoth turned to look back towards the pool.
The countdown was down to zero.
Jace Parker was about to wake up.